The mustang has eyes that are large and dark and betray his mood. His coat is bright bay, which is to say he’s a rich red, with black running down his knees and hocks. He has a white star the size of a silver dollar on his forehead and a freeze mark on his neck. He cranks his head high as a rider approaches, shaking out a rope from a large gray gelding. The mustang does not know what is to come. His name is Cheatgrass, and he’s six years old. In May he was as wild as a songbird.
The little horse belongs to Teryn Lee Muench, a 27-year-old son of the Big Bend who grew up in Brewster and Presidio counties. Teryn Lee is tall, blue-eyed, and long-limbed. He wears his shirts buttoned all the way to the neck and custom spurs that bear his name. He never rolls up his sleeves. A turkey feather is jammed in his hatband, and he’s prone to saying things like “I was out yesterday and it came a downpour,” or, speaking of a hardheaded horse, “He’s a sorry, counterfeit son of a gun.” Horse training is the only job he has ever had.
Teryn Lee was among 130 people who signed up this spring for the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, a contest in which trainers are given one hundred days to take feral horses from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), gentle these creatures, and teach them to accept grooming, leading, saddling, and riding. Don’t let the silliness of the contest’s name distract from the difficulty of the challenge. Domestic horses can be taught to walk, trot, and lope under saddle in one hundred days; it’s called being green-broke. But domestic horses are usually familiar with people. The mustangs in the Makeover have lived on the range for years without human interaction, surviving drought, brutal winters, and trolling mountain lions. The only connection they have to people is fear. Age presents another challenge. A domestic horse is broke to saddle at about age two, when it’s a gawky teenager. The contest mustangs are opinionated and mature. The culmination of the contest is a two-day event in Fort Worth in August, where the horses are judged on their level of training and responsiveness. The top twenty teams make the finals. The winner takes home $50,000.
For Teryn Lee, however, there’s more at stake than money. Most of his clients bring him horses that buck or bully, horses that have developed bad habits that stymie or even frighten their owners. Teryn Lee enjoys this work, but his goal is to become a well-known trainer and clinician who rides in top reined cow horse and cutting horse competitions. To step up to that level, he’ll have to do something dramatic. Transforming a scruffy, feral mustang that no one wanted into a handsome, gentle, willing riding horse would make people take notice. Winning would get his name out there, he says.
How does that work, gentling a wild thing? How do you convince a nomad that a different life is possible? Teryn Lee picked up Cheatgrass on May 8 from a BLM facility in Oklahoma and hauled him to his training operation near Marfa, a 50,000-acre ranch leased by his father and managed by Teryn Lee and his wife, Holly. Two days later, standing in a round pen, Cheatgrass looks runty and ribby, like a cayuse from a Frederic Remington painting, still wearing the BLM halter.
Teryn Lee rides a gelding called Big Gray. The mustang eyes them. Horses are prey animals that are vulnerable by themselves; as social beings, they seek out friendship. They feel safe with another horse, even if it’s a stranger. Cheatgrass allows Big Gray to step close. Teryn Lee leans down from his saddle and drops the halter off the mustang’s head.
“There,” he says. “Now he’s a wild mustang.”
Teryn Lee begins swinging a rope behind the mustang, who zips frantically around the perimeter of the round pen at a dead run, mane streaming. As Cheatgrass flies past, Teryn Lee occasionally flicks the tail of the rope into the horse’s path to make the mustang change direction. Cheatgrass nimbly tucks his knees and wheels away, deft as a cat, fleet as a thought.
“I want him to move around,” Teryn Lee explains. “Breaking a horse is all about controlling his feet. If I can control his feet, I’ve got him. Later I’ll try to touch him all over, but we’ll see. You can’t hurry a horse.”
Cheatgrass’s adrenaline slows down a tick as he considers his options. Thousands of generations of flight instinct course through a mustang, but he is also a survivor who comes loaded with a keen ability to adapt. Running away isn’t working, so Cheatgrass slows to a fast trot. He is small but spring-loaded, muscles bunching and jumping under his coat. His inside ear and white-ringed eye never leave the man deciding where he can go and how fast. With a swing or two of the rope over his head, Teryn Lee sends a loop and catches the horse around the neck. As the loop tightens, the mustang roars and rears, his hooves momentarily striking the sky. He faces Teryn Lee, sides heaving and nostrils flaring. They stare at each other. There is the sound of the horse’s breathing and the wind sliding by. Moments pass. Teryn Lee asks the gray gelding to step forward, his hand moving up the rope until the two horses are neck to neck. The loop loosens. Neither slow nor fast, Teryn Lee’s hand reaches forward and lightly rubs the star on Cheatgrass’s forehead. The first touch. The mustang is canted backward, every muscle straining, but he stands. His world has just changed.
The ranch where Cheatgrass lived this summer is high and remote, an hour from Marfa and deep within Presidio County. Great treeless hills roll and fold to the mountains on the horizon: Chinati Peak, humped and blue,